National Pastime

by Daniel Paul

Walking in the West Village, I stop at the park on Clarkson Street to watch some little league baseball. I lean against the chain-link fence and am grateful for how its curves accept my weight without comment or judgment (as I imagine the inside of a whale might). A man is standing near me; he speaks in easy platitudes, and I nod along, not so much because I agree with him—for example, he says the weather is perfect, and all I can think of is how one of the clouds looks like you and the other looks like Nixon and how I’m in no state to rank omens in terms of their relative inscrutability—but rather because I really like nodding: as with launching a satellite, once you’ve done the work of getting your head to the top of its apogee there is a pleasing feeling of submission to a higher power in letting gravity complete the act. The man, who I decide to name Bubba (because I have never met a Bubba and fear if I do not take this opportunity, I never will) tells me that its been a crazy year for the team, though I don’t know which team he is referring to (one is in blue, the other green, and I wonder if I’m the only one who is bothered by the fact that the team whose shirts do not have piped collars is the one sponsored by a local plumbing concern).

It’s been a crazy year for all of us, I say, unsure of what a “sane year” would look like.

Oh yes, he answers, lots of ups and downs for the squad.

Don’t I know it? I say, and with each nod I become more emotional about the (no doubt unjust) obstacles that the team has faced as they have tried to do nothing more than live their lives and play some baseball on Saturday afternoons.

Bubba does not look at me as he speaks, keeping his eye on the field (and I wonder if he is actually talking to someone on his other side instead of me, and, by extension, what percentage of the conversations I’ve ever had did not actually require my involvement). He says that the team has struggled with fundamentals.

Well, I say, they don’t teach the kids today like they used to teach us (though mostly I’m thinking of how when you see kids smoking these days none of them know how to hold a fucking cigarette).

Then Bubba says that the team couldn’t defend a bunt if its life depended on it (which is a pretty fucking apocalyptic hypothetical: a bunch of ten-year-olds asked to field bunts with guns to their heads). Perhaps chastened by the violence of his colloquialism, Bubba is silent for a little bit, during which time I lose track of the game, instead focusing my attention on a cluster of ducks in foul territory who seem to be debating what to do with a half-empty bag of potato chips of opaque origins. I am deeply impressed with the patience the ducks are showing (none of them have simply stuck their head into the bag, which is what I would have done if my anatomy was suited to the task) and I find myself deeply invested in their success, if only to see patience properly validated for once.

You see, Bubba interjects—and the ducks scatter, chipless and unrewarded, an indignity that I blame on Bubba, perhaps irrationally (what with the difference between correlation and causation), but if we could only apportion blame rationally then we would have to blame capitalism for EVERYTHING (except for you leaving me, which then we could NO LONGER blame on capitalism, which would create a vacuum in my ontological framework that I would likely need to fill immediately, even at the expense of watching the end of the game)—you see, that’s my son (and he is either pointing at the tall blond boy pitching for the blue team or one of the ducks flapping in the distance, though that seems unlikely, because life is so rarely both sweet and surprising at the same time). Jimmy is having a fantastic year. And he is so convincing elaborating Jimmy’s great deeds that I find some of my anxieties lifting (because, yes, things have been pretty shitty for a while now, but there is still the hope of human perfection in the form of Jimmy and the way he throws a baseball, and yes, I understand that sports are more likely to distract us then heal us, but I can still remember my father’s words when W threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11: he said SON GET IN HERE, YOU’LL WANT TO SEE THIS, and I said WHY THE FUCK WOULD I NEED TO WATCH THAT MOTHERFUCKER DO ANYTHING? and he said YOU MIGHT MISS SOMETHING; HE MIGHT GET SHOT!). So I turn to Bubba and I say, yes, Jimmy has been a source of comfort for us all—

As opposed to Ricky (and boy does Bubba’s voice change . . . I mean, you think you know a guy . . . he is so accusatory now that I worry my recent meditation on the life of ducks will be enough in his eyes to get me hanged for witchcraft) Ricky is having a TERRIBLE year. And I can’t help but feel for Ricky, for who among us has not felt the heavy weight of unfair expectation? (Just thinking of the dentist . . . why not just string me up with the fucking floss!?)

So I stand up for Ricky. Look, I say, none of us are happy with Ricky’s production on the field, but I’m sure he’s had a tough year, what with—

But Bubba is not interested in social determinism AT ALL. He’s like Man, Ricky can’t catch a pop-up Ricky can’t field a grounder Ricky can’t hit and that one time they let Ricky pitch . . . (at which point he trails off into silence as if THE DAY RICKY PITCHED ought be thought upon with nothing but hallowed reverence).

Come on, I say. Ricky’s been trying! All we can do is try, right?

To which Bubba doubles down, saying, Ricky ain’t trying; Ricky is a LOLLYGAGGER!

Okay, now I’ve had enough. So I do the only thing that makes sense: I say YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH RICKY? WELL, I’M HIS FUCKING FATHER! (Now, this is admittedly a risky claim, as I have no idea which one Ricky actually is. I have a theory that it’s the left fielder—that’s where they put me as a child—but all I really know about Ricky is that he isn’t very good at baseball, which, judging by the game unfolding in front of me, could aptly describe any of them . . . or me  #WeAreAllRicky).

Bubba is taken aback (and, it seems, fortunately, not because he happens to know Ricky’s actual father), as he begins speaking in the kind of half-assed sorry/notsorry apology that has become the dominant form of poetry for a certain kind of American man who doesn’t read poetry. He says Look man, I didn’t mean anything by it—

But no way I’m going to let him off that easy. I’m like: nah man, stow that shit. You meant every word of it; Anti-Rickyism isn’t just your hobby; it’s your fucking ideology. Your entire sense of self is predicated on there being a Ricky to define yourself in opposition to. What you said about Ricky was the only honest thing you’ve ever said in your miserable fucking life!

Hey, he says, you don’t even know me; we just met! And then he just starts speaking in gibberish: come to think of it, why haven’t we met? Why haven’t I seen you at other games, or practice, or Ricky’s birthday party last week

But I am hip to his game. No, I say, this isn’t about me; you don’t get to talk to me, not after what you did to Ricky. And I turn and walk away from the field (a gesture which would have a bit more gravitas if I weren’t abandoning my supposed son in the process). So I yell out COME ON RICKY; LET’S BLOW THIS JOINT; YOU’RE TOO GOOD FOR THIS BUSH LEAGUE SHIT, and I imagine him trotting after me, and us going to get some lunch at the bar on Spring Street my dad took me to after games. I will assure him that the world is full of Bubbas, but fuck ’em, you know what I mean? And he will nod knowingly—a skill that runs in the family—and years later remembering this conversation will give him great strength. And he will reference it in fireside talks we have when he visits me in the old folks’ home he had to put me into because I can no longer tie my shoes, and because I have no coherent memories that aren’t about you.

________________

Daniel Paul received his MFA from Southern Illinois University. His fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and humor writing have appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Pinch, Puerto Del Sol, Hobart, New Delta Review, Passages North and other magazines. He lives in Ohio where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati. Find his work at danpiercepaul.wordpress.com

Illustration by Elizabeth Boch

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